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Profile
Sim Choo Kheng

Climbing trees and playing in the river as a child are the inspiration for Escape, Malaysia’s new, sustainable theme park, which aims to coax children away from their computers and tvs

By Jennifer Harbottle | Published in Attractions Management 2013 issue 1


There’s something heart-warming about interviewing Sim Choo Kheng. As the CEO and creative talent behind the recently opened Escape theme park in Penang, Malaysia, Sim is driven as much by making people happy as he is by money – and his park is testament to that.

Forget rollercoasters, the latest 4D technology and hamburger joints, at Escape the emphasis is on re-discovering your inner child by experiencing play in its rawest form; such as climbing trees, swinging from ropes and not being told off for getting your clothes dirty.

Served up with a healthy dose of eco awareness, the inspiration behind Escape is Sim’s own childhood and he’s out to prove that despite today’s children’s fascination with ipads, Nerf guns and Barbie dvds, there really is no substitute for good old-fashioned play.

The sim-ple life
As a boy, Sim grew up as a peasant in a tiny kampong – a basic traditional Malaysian village – in the middle of Penang Island. Gauging how tough things were financially for him and his family is hard, because Sim doesn’t want to sound like he’s selling a sob story, but he says his farmer parents had little in the way of money and Sim and his siblings shared a very frugal upbringing, in a small wooden house on in the edge of the rainforest, literally living off the land.

Far from bemoaning his lot, Sim waxes lyrical about his “free range childhood.” He shares captivating stories of his typical days, spent larking around with the other village children, playing with the animals, farming the land and climbing trees, as well as swimming in the local lake and making his own toys from bits of wood. It’s the growing chasm between his self-professed “idyllic” childhood and the upbringing kids have today that inspired him to create Escape.

“I feel sorry for our children,” he laments. “They’re very institutionalised, and as parents we’ve become way too over-protective. Children don’t play in the traditional sense any more, they just watch tv or sit in front of computers, which means they have few physical skills and they’re rarely connected to nature, in the way that we were.”

Combining his experience as a parent, 20 years as a theme park industry consultant and the fact he’s “still a big kid,” Sim’s hoping Escape will achieve both his personal goal to motivate kids to play outdoors, as well as his professional goal to redefine theme parks, by proving that going back to basics does have appeal with consumers and can work as a legitimate business.

Dream catching
Sim started his theme park career working in a local butterfly park, before getting the job as operations manager at Malaysia’s largest waterpark, Sunway Lagoon. From there, he started his own waterpark consultancy called Sim Leisure, which, he says, created a niche by going into previously unchartered territory, such as post-war zones, to set up and manage attractions. However, it was after he was engaged to provide a complete turnkey service for the large-scale Lost Paradise of Dilmun waterpark in Bahrain, that Sim’s focus turned to building and running his own park. “I realised how satisfying it was to design a whole attraction from start to finish and manage something I’d created,” he says.

It was also during his frequent travels overseas that the seed of the idea for Escape began to grow. “Each time I came back to Asia I was struck by how Asian kids don’t play outside,” he explains. “Asians are gadget people. We live in condos with no outdoor lives and it’s beginning to affect our society.”

“I started to dream about what I could do to change that and how I could create something that would draw on my childhood and capture the traditional values of our forefathers.” Sim says he also wanted to address some of the problems facing this children’s generation, such as their sedentary lifestyle and “indoor mentality”, by encouraging physical wellness and a re-connection with nature.

The opportunity to realise his dream came in 2009, when an open tender came up to build a tourist attraction in his childhood home of Penang.

The government tender was for a 44-acre brownfield site, previously home to the Teluk Bahang reservoir. After winning the tender with its Escape theme park concept, Sim Leisure began work on its first phase, Adventureplay, just over 12 months ago.

Play at work
Adventureplay opened in November 2012 and is built on seven of the 44 acres. It combines physical challenges utilising existing jungle trees, such as rope bridges and climbing walls, with natural play activities including tree climbing and hill rolling. As well as a free fall experience and caving adventure, the park includes a Tubby Racer downhill tube ride and human-powered go-kart race called Zoom Bug. For little ones, Adventureplay includes a Tot’s Trail, where young children can practice climbing, crawling and balancing skills. Guests can also pan for gold in the stream, in what Sim calls a cultural nod to Malaysia’s mining history. So far, Sim says Go Ape is one of the most popular attractions with guests – a tree-climbing challenge for all ages that rewards climbers with “stunning” views at the top. “Parents are always shocked that their kids can climb trees,” Sim says. “They’ve not seen them do it before or, more likely, they’ve not let them do it.”

In early 2013, work will begin on the second phase of the development of Escape – Waterplay. Built on 11 acres of land, it will feature play-based water attractions and rides, based on the activities Sim used to play as a child in the river. This phase will open in 2014, after which the plan is to add more attractions to the 18-acres of yet-to-be-developed land in Adventureplay, including a chair lift, luge and zip lines, utilising the 60m (197ft) difference in height between the top and the bottom levels of the park.

Post 2014, Sim Leisure will develop a TreeTop Hotel plus cabins and tents on the property as part of phase three, which will be the final zone to open in 2017. As a branding exercise – and also one suspects, to indulge Sim’s Peter Pan-esque love of all things nostalgic – a comic book is also in development for sale in the park, where the bad guys are based on the greedy big boys in the village that used to pinch his toys as a kid.” Or corrupt cronies who harm the environment in the name of profit,” he says.

Along with wellness and play, sustainability is a central theme in all three phases of the park. Adventureplay already practices water harvesting and pipe-free irrigation, as will phase two and three. With an abundance of rain in Malaysia, Sim says it’s easy to conserve water, which is recycled wherever it can be, including in the park’s toilet facilities.

The buildings in the park have grass roofs, to provoke conversation among the children, in what Sim describes as his attempt to “popularise being eco”. Adventureplay also has a special learning house where children can find out about nature and the environment. For those not interested in visiting this, Sim says he’s enjoyed having a “playful dig” in signage throughout the park, which gently mocks computer and tv addicts.

A grown-up business
Having led the concept and design of phase one of the park, Sim’s role within the business is now part operational, part strategic. Every day Sim works a full day at the park, wearing his chief Escape officer badge and having fun with the guests, which he says is as much about providing fun for “senior kids” as it is for the children. Along with developing the park’s next phase, it’s a role he says he’ll continue to do for the first six months at least, until things are running as smoothly he’d like.

If you think all this sounds like child’s play, Sim admits there are some very grown up targets to reach before he can call his latest venture a success. The government, which has leased the land to Sim Leisure for 60 years, expects the development to be fully realised by 2017. Having already ploughed RM18m (£3.7m, E4.5m, US$5.9m) into the business to date, if he’s to stay on track, Sim’s going to have to find another RM162m (£33m, E40, US$53) in the next five years to get the next two phases off the ground.

Running a world-class tourism destination in Malaysia also carries a number of issues that Sim says are a constant challenge. Finding local staff that understand and follow safety procedures is, he admits, a “constant headache” and although he imports managers from overseas, Sim says he finds the red tape involved in employing ex-pats in Malaysia incredibly frustrating.

On top of this, Sim says that the infancy of Malaysia’s theme park industry brings another set of concerns. “Fifty years ago in Malaysia, we were trying to work out how to put food on the table. Now we have a leisure industry, but in terms of people understanding it from an operational and user point of view, you can’t fast track people’s thinking. The industry may be changing, but it’ll take time for people to catch up.”

As such, ticket prices are another challenge Sim and his team are up against. At RM60 (£12, E15, $19) per person for the whole day, Sim says domestic tourists consider Escape expensive, despite the fact that compared with other attractions worldwide, it’s cheap. “It’s not easy to create a world-class tourism destination that’s affordable in the eyes of Malaysians,” he explains. Longer term, as the new phases are rolled out, the park will target the overseas tourism market, but for now, with the focus on domestic tourists, Sim says it will take time to educate local guests that part of the ticket price goes towards providing safety and cleanliness that’s in line with the rest of the developed world.

Play dough
To think that developing a theme park isn’t in some part about making money is of course naive. And certainly, Sim talks about success in terms of financial rewards. Mainly, what he enjoys about having a “healthy” bank balance is that he can afford to be choosier about where he works and who he works for these days. “The first time I was able to turn down a client because I didn’t want to work with them, I knew I’d made it,” he explains. “Being able to design my own park and run it, rather than helping others realise their dream, is the other part I really like about where I am right now.”

While he concentrates on developing and running Escape in Penang, Sim’s also working towards creating a franchise of Escape, so he can export his Malaysian-created theme park brand to other parts of the world. Sim now has his eyes set on Europe because he believes the green initiative and the idea of outdoor physical play appeals to Europeans. He’s also keen to target the Middle East market, as he believes “it has the money to make things happen there much quicker”.

However, Sim acknowledges that to create a successful franchise concept, Escape first needs to be successful in his home country. For that to happen, he needs to convince people to buy into its philosophy and ideals. “Escape is different from other theme parks, which will either make or break it. It’s a re-visioning and departure from conventional ideas of rollercoaster rides and sugar-coated fantasies. It’s about escaping to a time before you needed that to have fun.”


About Sim Choo Kheng

 

Sim Choo Kheng
 

What are your hobbies?
The only real hobby I have is cooking – I find it relaxing. My favourite moment of the week is getting up early on Sunday morning to visit the local market to prepare a family meal. The smell of vegetables, spices, fish and meat is real and life-giving and gives me peace.

What’s your favourite food?
Asian food. I love noodles and could eat them for all three meals if necessary. It’s rare for me not to noodle at least once a day when I’m in Asia. When travelling, pasta is sometimes the stand-in.

What’s your favourite film?
First Blood (Rambo I). It’s a simple story about one man being pushed too far. It’s a long road, when you’re on your own, but he somehow wins through – this is inspirational to me. I’ve never liked complicated movies with hundreds of twists. To me, movies should entertain, not confuse.

What drives you?
Being different. I grew up surrounded by traditionally minded people who wanted to cut me down to size but I wasn’t having that! Apart from living in a house (as opposed to a cave) and being married with kids, I don’t usually conform to the norms. Perhaps my real driver is my ethos of being someone who’s prepared to leave something good behind to try and discover something new.

How would you describe yourself?
I’m a fully paid-up workaholic. The only time I do nothing is when I sleep. I’m funny when in the right company; I have a good sense of humour, with a dose of sarcasm – rather rare for an Asian! I’m also known for my decently dirty jokes.

I can’t live without music – I think the world dies when music stops. I also think all the best songs were all written in the 1980s. So it’s quite pointless to listen to anything written after that.

How would others describe you?
People who don’t know me usually read me wrong because of how I look. I’ve worn my hair spiky since the 1980s.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
From my mother a long time ago. She would nag me with the phrase: “People don’t die from hard work.” I suppose I was converted in my young days.


Adventureplay, the park’s first phase, is now open and covers seven of the available 44 acres
Kids can pan for gold in the stream
Kids can climb trees at the park’s most popular attraction
At Escape, Children can enjoy a host of physical activity challenges, from walking on rope bridges to underground caving
At Escape, Children can enjoy a host of physical activity challenges, from walking on rope bridges to underground caving
At Escape, Children can enjoy a host of physical activity challenges, from walking on rope bridges to underground caving
Sim says his back-to-nature theme park wants to show families the importance of natural play, wellness and sustainability
Sim says his back-to-nature theme park wants to show families the importance of natural play, wellness and sustainability
Sim says his back-to-nature theme park wants to show families the importance of natural play, wellness and sustainability
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Jobs    News   Products   Magazine
Profile
Sim Choo Kheng

Climbing trees and playing in the river as a child are the inspiration for Escape, Malaysia’s new, sustainable theme park, which aims to coax children away from their computers and tvs

By Jennifer Harbottle | Published in Attractions Management 2013 issue 1


There’s something heart-warming about interviewing Sim Choo Kheng. As the CEO and creative talent behind the recently opened Escape theme park in Penang, Malaysia, Sim is driven as much by making people happy as he is by money – and his park is testament to that.

Forget rollercoasters, the latest 4D technology and hamburger joints, at Escape the emphasis is on re-discovering your inner child by experiencing play in its rawest form; such as climbing trees, swinging from ropes and not being told off for getting your clothes dirty.

Served up with a healthy dose of eco awareness, the inspiration behind Escape is Sim’s own childhood and he’s out to prove that despite today’s children’s fascination with ipads, Nerf guns and Barbie dvds, there really is no substitute for good old-fashioned play.

The sim-ple life
As a boy, Sim grew up as a peasant in a tiny kampong – a basic traditional Malaysian village – in the middle of Penang Island. Gauging how tough things were financially for him and his family is hard, because Sim doesn’t want to sound like he’s selling a sob story, but he says his farmer parents had little in the way of money and Sim and his siblings shared a very frugal upbringing, in a small wooden house on in the edge of the rainforest, literally living off the land.

Far from bemoaning his lot, Sim waxes lyrical about his “free range childhood.” He shares captivating stories of his typical days, spent larking around with the other village children, playing with the animals, farming the land and climbing trees, as well as swimming in the local lake and making his own toys from bits of wood. It’s the growing chasm between his self-professed “idyllic” childhood and the upbringing kids have today that inspired him to create Escape.

“I feel sorry for our children,” he laments. “They’re very institutionalised, and as parents we’ve become way too over-protective. Children don’t play in the traditional sense any more, they just watch tv or sit in front of computers, which means they have few physical skills and they’re rarely connected to nature, in the way that we were.”

Combining his experience as a parent, 20 years as a theme park industry consultant and the fact he’s “still a big kid,” Sim’s hoping Escape will achieve both his personal goal to motivate kids to play outdoors, as well as his professional goal to redefine theme parks, by proving that going back to basics does have appeal with consumers and can work as a legitimate business.

Dream catching
Sim started his theme park career working in a local butterfly park, before getting the job as operations manager at Malaysia’s largest waterpark, Sunway Lagoon. From there, he started his own waterpark consultancy called Sim Leisure, which, he says, created a niche by going into previously unchartered territory, such as post-war zones, to set up and manage attractions. However, it was after he was engaged to provide a complete turnkey service for the large-scale Lost Paradise of Dilmun waterpark in Bahrain, that Sim’s focus turned to building and running his own park. “I realised how satisfying it was to design a whole attraction from start to finish and manage something I’d created,” he says.

It was also during his frequent travels overseas that the seed of the idea for Escape began to grow. “Each time I came back to Asia I was struck by how Asian kids don’t play outside,” he explains. “Asians are gadget people. We live in condos with no outdoor lives and it’s beginning to affect our society.”

“I started to dream about what I could do to change that and how I could create something that would draw on my childhood and capture the traditional values of our forefathers.” Sim says he also wanted to address some of the problems facing this children’s generation, such as their sedentary lifestyle and “indoor mentality”, by encouraging physical wellness and a re-connection with nature.

The opportunity to realise his dream came in 2009, when an open tender came up to build a tourist attraction in his childhood home of Penang.

The government tender was for a 44-acre brownfield site, previously home to the Teluk Bahang reservoir. After winning the tender with its Escape theme park concept, Sim Leisure began work on its first phase, Adventureplay, just over 12 months ago.

Play at work
Adventureplay opened in November 2012 and is built on seven of the 44 acres. It combines physical challenges utilising existing jungle trees, such as rope bridges and climbing walls, with natural play activities including tree climbing and hill rolling. As well as a free fall experience and caving adventure, the park includes a Tubby Racer downhill tube ride and human-powered go-kart race called Zoom Bug. For little ones, Adventureplay includes a Tot’s Trail, where young children can practice climbing, crawling and balancing skills. Guests can also pan for gold in the stream, in what Sim calls a cultural nod to Malaysia’s mining history. So far, Sim says Go Ape is one of the most popular attractions with guests – a tree-climbing challenge for all ages that rewards climbers with “stunning” views at the top. “Parents are always shocked that their kids can climb trees,” Sim says. “They’ve not seen them do it before or, more likely, they’ve not let them do it.”

In early 2013, work will begin on the second phase of the development of Escape – Waterplay. Built on 11 acres of land, it will feature play-based water attractions and rides, based on the activities Sim used to play as a child in the river. This phase will open in 2014, after which the plan is to add more attractions to the 18-acres of yet-to-be-developed land in Adventureplay, including a chair lift, luge and zip lines, utilising the 60m (197ft) difference in height between the top and the bottom levels of the park.

Post 2014, Sim Leisure will develop a TreeTop Hotel plus cabins and tents on the property as part of phase three, which will be the final zone to open in 2017. As a branding exercise – and also one suspects, to indulge Sim’s Peter Pan-esque love of all things nostalgic – a comic book is also in development for sale in the park, where the bad guys are based on the greedy big boys in the village that used to pinch his toys as a kid.” Or corrupt cronies who harm the environment in the name of profit,” he says.

Along with wellness and play, sustainability is a central theme in all three phases of the park. Adventureplay already practices water harvesting and pipe-free irrigation, as will phase two and three. With an abundance of rain in Malaysia, Sim says it’s easy to conserve water, which is recycled wherever it can be, including in the park’s toilet facilities.

The buildings in the park have grass roofs, to provoke conversation among the children, in what Sim describes as his attempt to “popularise being eco”. Adventureplay also has a special learning house where children can find out about nature and the environment. For those not interested in visiting this, Sim says he’s enjoyed having a “playful dig” in signage throughout the park, which gently mocks computer and tv addicts.

A grown-up business
Having led the concept and design of phase one of the park, Sim’s role within the business is now part operational, part strategic. Every day Sim works a full day at the park, wearing his chief Escape officer badge and having fun with the guests, which he says is as much about providing fun for “senior kids” as it is for the children. Along with developing the park’s next phase, it’s a role he says he’ll continue to do for the first six months at least, until things are running as smoothly he’d like.

If you think all this sounds like child’s play, Sim admits there are some very grown up targets to reach before he can call his latest venture a success. The government, which has leased the land to Sim Leisure for 60 years, expects the development to be fully realised by 2017. Having already ploughed RM18m (£3.7m, E4.5m, US$5.9m) into the business to date, if he’s to stay on track, Sim’s going to have to find another RM162m (£33m, E40, US$53) in the next five years to get the next two phases off the ground.

Running a world-class tourism destination in Malaysia also carries a number of issues that Sim says are a constant challenge. Finding local staff that understand and follow safety procedures is, he admits, a “constant headache” and although he imports managers from overseas, Sim says he finds the red tape involved in employing ex-pats in Malaysia incredibly frustrating.

On top of this, Sim says that the infancy of Malaysia’s theme park industry brings another set of concerns. “Fifty years ago in Malaysia, we were trying to work out how to put food on the table. Now we have a leisure industry, but in terms of people understanding it from an operational and user point of view, you can’t fast track people’s thinking. The industry may be changing, but it’ll take time for people to catch up.”

As such, ticket prices are another challenge Sim and his team are up against. At RM60 (£12, E15, $19) per person for the whole day, Sim says domestic tourists consider Escape expensive, despite the fact that compared with other attractions worldwide, it’s cheap. “It’s not easy to create a world-class tourism destination that’s affordable in the eyes of Malaysians,” he explains. Longer term, as the new phases are rolled out, the park will target the overseas tourism market, but for now, with the focus on domestic tourists, Sim says it will take time to educate local guests that part of the ticket price goes towards providing safety and cleanliness that’s in line with the rest of the developed world.

Play dough
To think that developing a theme park isn’t in some part about making money is of course naive. And certainly, Sim talks about success in terms of financial rewards. Mainly, what he enjoys about having a “healthy” bank balance is that he can afford to be choosier about where he works and who he works for these days. “The first time I was able to turn down a client because I didn’t want to work with them, I knew I’d made it,” he explains. “Being able to design my own park and run it, rather than helping others realise their dream, is the other part I really like about where I am right now.”

While he concentrates on developing and running Escape in Penang, Sim’s also working towards creating a franchise of Escape, so he can export his Malaysian-created theme park brand to other parts of the world. Sim now has his eyes set on Europe because he believes the green initiative and the idea of outdoor physical play appeals to Europeans. He’s also keen to target the Middle East market, as he believes “it has the money to make things happen there much quicker”.

However, Sim acknowledges that to create a successful franchise concept, Escape first needs to be successful in his home country. For that to happen, he needs to convince people to buy into its philosophy and ideals. “Escape is different from other theme parks, which will either make or break it. It’s a re-visioning and departure from conventional ideas of rollercoaster rides and sugar-coated fantasies. It’s about escaping to a time before you needed that to have fun.”


About Sim Choo Kheng

 

Sim Choo Kheng
 

What are your hobbies?
The only real hobby I have is cooking – I find it relaxing. My favourite moment of the week is getting up early on Sunday morning to visit the local market to prepare a family meal. The smell of vegetables, spices, fish and meat is real and life-giving and gives me peace.

What’s your favourite food?
Asian food. I love noodles and could eat them for all three meals if necessary. It’s rare for me not to noodle at least once a day when I’m in Asia. When travelling, pasta is sometimes the stand-in.

What’s your favourite film?
First Blood (Rambo I). It’s a simple story about one man being pushed too far. It’s a long road, when you’re on your own, but he somehow wins through – this is inspirational to me. I’ve never liked complicated movies with hundreds of twists. To me, movies should entertain, not confuse.

What drives you?
Being different. I grew up surrounded by traditionally minded people who wanted to cut me down to size but I wasn’t having that! Apart from living in a house (as opposed to a cave) and being married with kids, I don’t usually conform to the norms. Perhaps my real driver is my ethos of being someone who’s prepared to leave something good behind to try and discover something new.

How would you describe yourself?
I’m a fully paid-up workaholic. The only time I do nothing is when I sleep. I’m funny when in the right company; I have a good sense of humour, with a dose of sarcasm – rather rare for an Asian! I’m also known for my decently dirty jokes.

I can’t live without music – I think the world dies when music stops. I also think all the best songs were all written in the 1980s. So it’s quite pointless to listen to anything written after that.

How would others describe you?
People who don’t know me usually read me wrong because of how I look. I’ve worn my hair spiky since the 1980s.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
From my mother a long time ago. She would nag me with the phrase: “People don’t die from hard work.” I suppose I was converted in my young days.


Adventureplay, the park’s first phase, is now open and covers seven of the available 44 acres
Kids can pan for gold in the stream
Kids can climb trees at the park’s most popular attraction
At Escape, Children can enjoy a host of physical activity challenges, from walking on rope bridges to underground caving
At Escape, Children can enjoy a host of physical activity challenges, from walking on rope bridges to underground caving
At Escape, Children can enjoy a host of physical activity challenges, from walking on rope bridges to underground caving
Sim says his back-to-nature theme park wants to show families the importance of natural play, wellness and sustainability
Sim says his back-to-nature theme park wants to show families the importance of natural play, wellness and sustainability
Sim says his back-to-nature theme park wants to show families the importance of natural play, wellness and sustainability
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Universal's Epic Universe set to open in 2025
Building work on Universal's Epic Universe – a new theme park at the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, US – is advancing and the park is set to open to visitors in 2025.
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COMPANY PROFILES
IDEATTACK

IDEATTACK is a full-service planning and design company with headquarters in Los Angeles. [more...]
Holovis

Holovis is a privately owned company established in 2004 by CEO Stuart Hetherington. [more...]
Antonio Zamperla Spa

Founded in 1966, the Antonio Zamperla SPA is privately owned by Mr Alberto Zamperla. Located in Vi [more...]
iPlayCO

iPlayCo was established in 1999. [more...]
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FEATURED SUPPLIER

Attractions industry to reunite this September at IAAPA Expo Europe in London
For the first time in more than a decade, industry leaders from across the global attractions industry will once again gather in London as part of the annual IAAPA Expo Europe, the sector’s premier international event. [more...]
VIDEO GALLERY

Red Raion Showreel 2021
Another year has passed, and we’re definitely happy with what we have accomplished in 2021! Find out more...
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Red Raion Showreel 2021 – Red Raion
Red Raion TV - Opening Event: FICO Eataly World – Red Raion
ProSlide's all-in-one waterplay entertainment center – Proslide Tech Inc
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CATALOGUE GALLERY
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DIRECTORY
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DIARY

 

27-29 Sep 2022

International Congress on Thermal Tourism

Ourense, Ourense, Spain
13 Oct 2022

VAC 2022

The ICC Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom
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